Countless new books are published every month, but only a small number achieve
coveted best-seller status. The list of books labeled "Top-Ten" by The New York Times
often is diverse, with genres ranging from mass-market fiction to autobiography.
Although every book is different, each best seller strikes a chord with the population at
large for one reason or another, resulting in sky-rocketing sales figures. Rosamunde
Pilcher's September is no exception. September, a romantic work of fiction, enjoyed
best-seller status in 1990. Several aspects of the novel are typical of best-sellers: it
presents life in an idealized light, it is easy to read, and it is the follow-up novel to its
author's earlier best-seller. These qualities are present in many other best-selling novels,
so September is in many ways reflective of what characteristics can make a book become a
best-seller. But not everything about the novel is illustrative of other best-sellers. Unlike
many others, September de-emphasizes scandal and immorality. While many novels
depend on shocking readers with violence or crime, Pilcher's novel instead highlights
morality and virtue.
Pilcher's glorified portrayal of life in the Aird and Balmerino families certainly
contributed to September's success. Close family and friend relationships, lush scenery,
and lavish settings grace the novel's pages, presenting readers with a lifestyle that is often
sought-after but less often achieved. Although the novel is set in Scotland, the families
represent perfect American dream dynamics. In September, readers with less-than-perfect
lives can escape into a world where two happily closely-knit families' largest problems are
soap opera-scaled: the novel's central action involves preparing for a large birthday party,
and its largest conflict involves an argument between husband and wife about fidelity. The
Airds -- Edmund, Virginia, and their son Henry -- are a happy, healthy, wealthy family,
and their greatest problem involves sending Henry away to a prominent private school.
They live in a home that has been passed down through generations of Airds and lies
comfortably in the heart of a luscious, green glen. The Balmerinos, too, have a successful
family life. Archie and Isobel have a healthy relationship with their daughter, Lucilla,
despite her not living at home. Both families share a sort of friendship with each other
that many readers envy. Archie and Edmund were childhood friends, and now their two
families are intertwined and often operate as one large, supportive family. In today's
society of broken homes and alienation from one's neighbors, this intricate, intimate circle
of friends and family seems ideal to many readers. For this reason, many readers choose
to read September as a way of tasting the good life.
Everything about September is picture-perfect, but that does not mean its
characters are infallible. Even the Airds and Balmerinos have problems; however, their
problems are always neatly resolved, always in the most desirable ways. Real life may not
always lead to a happy ending, but through reading September, readers can vicariously
enjoy quick and easy solutions to every one of life problems. Perhaps the best example of
this tragedy-turned-fairy tale scenario is Pandora's suicide near the end of the novel.
Pandora, Archie's estranged sister, has returned to Strathcroy for the first time in twenty
years. After a marvelous visit with her family and friends, Pandora downs a bottle of
sleeping pills before drowning herself in a nearby loch. This heart-wrenching tale alone
might draw some readers because of its tragic nature. But more readers like a happy
ending than a tragic one, and Pilcher delivers just that. Seeking consolation, the
Balmerinos hunt down Pandora's physician, who explains that Pandora was --
unbeknownst to the family and the reader -- suffering from terminal cancer. Both the
family and the reader are relieved. Her suicide is no longer senseless or inexplicable, but
rather a tragedy with which the reader can sympathize. Pandora's cancer is an explanation
we all can hold onto. In Pilcher's world, no one suffers without cause, and every crisis
has a reasonable explanation. Again, readers are drawn to Pilcher's work because of her
representation of life as a picture-perfect world where one can count on wrong always
being rectified. This representation not only garnered a large readership, but also
prompted several reviewers to praised Pilcher's work. "Pilcher writes safely -- crises are
introduced then quickly disposed of before one even gets a chance to fret over the
potential acts of murder, adultery, and other illicit deeds are nipped in the bud," said
Denise Perry Donavin in a review for Booklist. "However, she does have the ability to
pull readers into her created world and make them glad when such family, romantic, and
financial difficulties are smoothed out."
This presentation of life as an ideal is a common characteristic among many
best-selling novels. Many best-sellers depict at least one aspect of life as being almost too
perfect, causing readers to soak in every detail of life as it could have been. Danielle Steel
novels, for example, often feature romantic relationships that many women long for.
Readers without stunningly handsome husbands and glamorous lifestyles can realize their
dreams for at least a few hours while curled up with a paperback. Or readers with a taste
for adventure can take in a James Bond novel and live vicariously through the man who
always turns out on top of the game. Through her presentation of glorified friend and
family relations, Pilcher is simply giving readers a taste of living an ideal life -- a common
convention for best-sellers.
In addition to its subject matter's appeal to readers, September is a book
that is intellectually approachable for a wide audience -- another factor that contributed to
its success. The novel is printed in a number of editions including mass market paperback,
a format that appeals to many readers because of its accessibility and affordability. It is
marketed to reader with an average income and average education -- in effect, September
is marketed to the general public at large, rather than alienating readers with lower-level
educations. The novel is one that can be read passively, without much analyzing or
concentration. Even the most intense conflicts -- such as when Virginia Aird tells Henry
she does not wish to drive him to boarding school -- are narrated with straightforward
simplicity. "But [Henry] was gone, his footsteps stamping up the stairs to the sanctuary of
his bedroom. Virginia, gritting her teeth, closed her eyes and wished that she could close
her eyes as well. It came. The deadly slam of his bedroom door. Then silence" (Pilcher,
285). September's plot is not complex, nor is its vocabulary intellectually demanding.
The novel is focused more around character and plot than scholarly literary value. It does
not challenge the reader's intellect. Readers instead select September because it is an
engaging, though perhaps simple, story. And many readers, who are more interested in
entertainment value than intellectual stimulus, find such novels appealing. This broad
accessibility is a common characteristic of many best-selling novels. Bridget Jones' Diary,
by Helen Fielding, uses colloquial language and ordinary vocabulary to engage readers
into the story of Bridget's daily ups and downs. She deals with problems like weight loss
and smoking that are not earth-shattering, but instead these problems are familiar to a
large audience. Widespread appeal, then, is an important element of a best-selling novel.
Another important factor in propelling September to best-seller status is the
success of Pilcher's earlier novel, The Shell Seekers. The Shell Seekers has sold close to
four million copies worldwide and remained on national best-seller lists for two years,
according to St. Martin's Press, Pilcher's publisher. The Shell Seekers was published in
1987. September hit bookshelves three years later, and by that time Pilcher had
accumulated a sizable fan base. Many Shell Seekers fans probably purchased the book in
hopes of finding an equally satisfying novel. A reader who reviewed September on
Amazon.com is one such reader. "I was a huge fan of The Shell Seekers, so I had to try
another Pilcher novel. This novel was as good [as] if not better than The Shell Seekers,"
the reader said. Some other readers who may not have read The Shell Seekers probably
had heard of Pilcher's success and purchased September based on recognition of the
author's name. Once an author has one best-selling novel, his or her novels are far more
likely to achieve best-seller status because of the power of name recognition. Readers
who liked previous books by an author are likely to purchase subsequent works because
they anticipate being equally satisfied with the work. This emphasis on name recognition
is apparent even by examining the cover art of September's book jacket. The jacket-- like
many other successful authors' covers -- features the author's name in larger print than the
book's title. This calls attention to the author and immediately draws Pilcher fans to the
Many other best-sellers have benefited from author recognition. Books by authors
like Danielle Steel, Mary Higgins Clark, and John Grisham grace The New York Times
best-sellers list month after month, year after year, largely because of their
widely-recognized names. In some cases, books by previously successful authors become
best-sellers solely because of the author's name recognition and sales figures do not reflect
the book's own popularity. Such was the case with Joseph Heller's Something Happened,
the novel that followed his largely popular Catch-22. Although Something Happened
received many bad reviews and its sales rates dropped relatively quickly, it initially
achieved best-seller status, largely due to consumers' recognition of Heller's name.
But based on several contemporary reviews, September did not share the
short-lived success of Something Happened. September's initial sales figures were
boosted by its author's success, but the novel also seems to have satisfied readers'
expectations. Many favorable reviews linked September to The Shell Seekers, which
probably contributed to its success as a follow-up novel. Readers "familiar with The Shell
Seekers will be pleased to see one of its minor characters playing a major role here," said a
reviewer for Publisher's Weekly. Other reviewers said September is just as good as
Pilcher's earlier best-seller. September "adds up to a rich and entertaining read, not quite
so suspenseful as The Shell Seekers, but equally enjoyable," said Aiken in Book World.
Many qualities of September are fairly typical of best-sellers; however, the novel's
success also was influenced by its de-emphasis of immorality and scandal, which is an
unusual quality for a best-seller. Published in 1990, September hit bookshelves alongside
novels by Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Mary Higgins Clark. These authors, in contrast
to Pilcher, use murder, adultery, gore, and horror to shock and wow readers into
purchasing their work. But September leaves out these dark elements and instead presents
the reader with a surprisingly wholesome alternative. Pilcher draws a mass readership
from people who are thirsty for a book with wholesome, polite charm. "While her peers
strain to outdo one another in outrage -- carnage, sleaze, the Pudding that ate Chicago --
Pilcher brazenly dares to ground her novels in virtue," said a reviewer in the Los Angeles
Times Book Review. Although Pilcher's characters are not saints, they commit relatively
few scandalous deeds compared to other authors' best-selling counterparts. Little Henry
Aird steals a bus schedule from his housemaid, and Virginia cheats on Edmund in a time of
personal weakness. But compared to other authors' dependence on shock value and
testing limits, Pilcher's September provides readers with a reaffirmation of the value of
virtue -- a quality that earned critical acclaim. "Since that is so improbable in the real
world, I contend that in fiction -- in some areas of fiction -- this is a virtue and fills a
need," said Joan Aiken in The Washington Post's Book World.
Although Pilcher's focus on virtue is not necessarily typical of best-selling fiction,
it is not entirely unique, either. For example, Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom's novel
that now tops Amazon.com's "100 Hot Books list" also leaves out elements of scandal
and shock; this novel instead emphasizes the value of relationships and personal growth.
For both Pilcher and Albom, this shift away from negativity likely contributes to their
novels' success because of the self-improvement, feel-good craze that marks the 1990s.
Many chart-toppers of the decade focus on self-improvement, spirituality, and morality.
In 1993, John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus became a nationwide
best-seller, reflecting the growing popularity of self-help books. In 1994, William J.
Bennett's The Book of Virtues claimed a spot on the best-sellers' list, again reflecting this
social shift toward morality. Given this social trend, the absence of violence or scandal in
Pilcher's work probably adds to her popularity, despite the rarity of this practice in
In short, a number of factors contributed to September's success as a best-selling
novel, most of which are common characteristics among other best-sellers. The novel
allows readers to escape the real world and vicariously experience the successful lives of
its characters, as many other best-sellers also do. Like many best-sellers, September is
written with average-level vocabulary and a simple plot and is therefore accessible to a
large number of readers. The novel was Pilcher's follow-up work to her earlier
best-seller, The Shell Seekers, and thus had the advantage of name recognition -- also a
huge factor for many other best-sellers. Unlike many best-sellers, September emphasizes
morality over scandal, reflecting social movements of the 1990s. Any month of the year,
September boasts numerous qualities that exemplify best-selling novels.
Amazon.com's Customer Book Reviews:
Booklist. Vol. 86. March 15, 1990. p.1395.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 20, 1990.
Publisher's Weekly. Vol. 237. March 16, 1990.
Washington Post Book World. Vol. 20. April 29, 1990. p.1.